If one looks back on human history, millions of lives have been lost for various fights and disagreements between powers. Although one has the resources and knowledge to learn from past mistakes, humanity still chooses violence to end complications, believing the sacrifice of life to be the only way, turning it’s back on the possibilities of freedom and peace. The novel, First They Killed my Father, by Loung Ung is based on real events and offers a first-person narrative of surviving the Cambodian war and a communist regime. The author was exposed to oppression, brutality and immense loss and pain at a time in her life when one’s personality and identity develops. Ung had to deal with loss/genocide, discrimination and violence throughout the Cambodian war; her experiences, and how she chose to deal with them, formed her into the strong, affectionate activist she is today.
Ung dealt with the loss of her family members, by converting her sadness into anger and directing it at the regime. She lost her sister to disease and her mother, father and baby sister to the brutality of the regime: “After surviving the deaths of many of her family members, the reader might expect Loung to feel deep sadness and loss. Instead, she only expresses rage at the world around her, the Khmer Rouge, and Pol Pot. Using her anger as a source of strength” (First They Killed My Father Discussion Guide, Moore). In a world where the weak die, Ung is left with no other choice but to stay strong and focus on her anger, using it as a distraction from the sadness and desperation she is forced to suppress. The anger spurred her ambition and desire to stay alive, which later kept her motivated to help the country she left behind. Ung wrote in her book, “When night comes, the gods again taunt us with a radiant sunset.`Nothing should be this beautiful,´ I quietly say to Chou.´The gods are playing a trick on us. How could they be so cruel and still make the sky so lovely?´ It is unfair of the gods to show us beauty when I am in so much pain and anguish.´I want to destroy all the beautiful things” (First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, Ung). Not only does she feel anger and resentment in herself but she also inflicts it on the world around her, letting the overwhelming sinful emotions take over her. She feels jealousy towards nature, because it portrays all she lost and what she’ll never have. Even though she is surrounded by death, cruelty and bloodshed, nature always stayed its calm charmful self, somehow unaffected by all the disaster.
Because Ung experienced so much loss and pain she was able to sympathize and convert her hate to enact positive change in the desperate world around her. Queen Noor comments on Ung’s Novel,“This is a story of the triumph of a child’s indomitable spirit over the tyranny of the Khmer Rouge. Loung’s subsequent campaign against land mines is a result of witnessing firsthand how her famished neighbors risked their lives to traverse unmapped minefields in search for food. ” (First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, Ung). Ung has a strong connection to Cambodia, she associates the country with her story, her culture, and her love for her family. Instead of ignoring the terrible experiences she had, she decides to accept them and return to the place which brought her so much terror, to help the people she left behind; the love for her family is stronger than the darkness surrounding her memories. Now, Ung is an inspiring activist trying to get rid of the mines in Cambodia, “I had to make a choice. Do I live in fear or do I choose to stand up and raise my voice. And I chose to stand and I did this because I realized how hard it was for survivors of war, like myself, how much sacrifice went into their survival, what my parents did and how enraged they would be to see how my siblings and I were having a hard time surviving the peace because of landmines” (Cambodian Genocide Survivor, Ung). There were so many situations that could have ended with her dead, but growing up surrounded by death made her realize how precious and short life is. Since 1997 Loung Ung has been working with the Veterans-International-Cambodia where she supports victims of war and poverty and gives them the tools to start a better life. She also works with organizations like the CLMMRF, ICBL, PIO, AFESIP where she saves children from sex trafficking, families from poverty, people from landmines and improved education. Ung used her book to cope with her emotions and experiences, “ Loung begins her story told in the voice of a child, “because that’s what I lost- my childhood” (Surviving the Killing Fields). Although reenacting and remembering the immense horror she experienced must have been terribly hard, she still used her novel to display her story and to raise awareness to a forgotten tragedy, one that she might’ve almost forgotten herself, whilst living in the safety of the United States.
Ung had to deal with discrimination for being a mix of Chinese and Cambodian.Kaitlyn Moore highlights, “ While the racist indoctrination had begun to work on her while she was in the child-soldier camp, Loung is able to reach her own conclusions through her own experience, evidence of the intelligence and strength that her father always said she possessed” ( First They Killed My Father, Discussion Guide, Moore). Although equity and equal rights were the main theme of the communists, Ung was still forced to deal with major discrimination. Ung experienced such hatred from her own people and still decided to go back and help the ones she left behind, the ones that betrayed her in the toughest times. She took the discrimination she experienced and described it by using a simile, “They look very mean, like hungry tigers ready to pounce on us. Their black eyes stare at me, full of contempt. I don’t understand why they are looking at me as if I am a strange animal, when in reality, we look much the same” ( First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, Ung). Written from a five year olds perspective, the image of innocence is emphasized by the main character. She is still a young kid and can’t comprehend the discrimination she has to withstand. Throughout the novel one can see the change in her personality, how the war formed her and made her lose the innocence and see the cruelties of humanity.
Additionally, Ung had to deal with discrimination for being a woman. Throughout the war Ung was well aware of the discrimination against women. “ Ung has also a unique understanding of the treatment of women in war and genocide, something she shares with Menchu. This makes her privy to sexual crimes and the silencing of women that patriarchy in its many forms results in” (Surviving the Killing Fields). The discrimination Ung felt and noticed directed towards women and how they were treated, formed her into the feminist activist she is today. Being exposed to the discrimination at such an early age, and coming to the conclusion of the wrong doings, inspired her to rise as a role model and show the women of Cambodia her strength but also make them realize their own. Loung Ung said so herself in an interview, “I was seven years old when I knew that to survive, I had to become dumb, deaf, mute, blind, invisible just so I could have the privilege of taking that next breath, to live, to be alive. And yet I lived in fear, with every breath” (Cambodian Genocide Survivor, Ung). Ung was able to accomplish remarkable things in Cambodia with activist campaigns such as The Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center (CWCC) in which she helped women find refuge from domestic violence, sex trafficking and sexual abuse. Because she endured so much fear in her childhood, she was able to grow strong, since the struggles later in life would never compare to what she had already been through. “There must be at least two “Loungs” for the text to exist as it does: a U.S Loung and a Khmer Loung. U.S Loung is a person of letters and she has had many of the benefits of living at the political center of the world’s largest capitalist economy. However Khmer Loung, is five years old and no less real, but she is different and see’s the world through a child’s eye. She is the subaltern Loung, the silenced voice of the oppressed” (Surviving the Killing Fields). In order to write her novel, Ung had to separate herself from her memories to be able to process and relive her life in Cambodia. Due to the separation of herself and her childhood self, Ung was able to see the situation in a clear, neutral way and could concentrate on the meaning of spreading acknowledgment of the forgotten Cambodian survivors, rather than being blinded by the hate and anger she was so accustomed too.
The war and starvation affected Ung’s life and morals, as well as how she must deal with them to survive. Anagha Komaragiri wrote in an article, “ Scenes of the family’s migration, military encounters and forced labor are woven through dream sequences, where Loung Ung envisions characters from folklore coming to life along with soldiers and imagines what her life could have looked like, had she not been displaced. There’s a sharp distinction between the darkness of reality and the vivid rosiness of Loungs Ungs Dreams” (First they Killed My Father is a Heart-Wrenching Portrayal of Historic Events, Komaragiri). In the Netflix movie First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, directed by Angelina Jolie and the script written by Loung Ung, there is a clear distinction of colors when Ung switches from memories to reality. In the book Ung created a similar scene by using imagery and painting a colorful warm scene from her memories and the life before the war, and when Ung is back in the present one can feel the colors going cold, because she is surrounded with an aura of fear, confusion and the terrors that are yet to come. Kaitlyn Moore wrote, “Ung is wearing the same Uniform as the soldier. Only a short time before, she was a child soldier herself and she knows that here was widespread forced inscription. The helpless prisoner, who is about to die arouses fear in Ung that he will kill her. Ung sometimes displaces the boiling desire to torture him into the crowd, saying that `they´ want to kill him, but in other moments `we´ or `I´ want him to die. Ung, like the prisoner, is helpless, but she is the voice for his collective crisis” (First They Killed My Father Discussion Guide, Moore). Ung is only a child, and no child should ever have to experience and go through what she did. When Ung had the chance to see a soldier get killed, and get revenge for her family she suffered from an inner disagreement, since she couldn’t seem to depict the right and wrong in the situation. Although this scene shows a vulnerable and messed up side from Ung, the scene also shows what the cruelty of the war has done to her, a five year old child, shaped into a killing machine, the trigger of her gun being the hate and lust for revenge.
Ung uses the memories of war and genocide to create her own personality.Her experiences have helped her view life from a different perspective,“life isn’t about finding yourself, life is about creating yourself´ I believe it’s the same for leadership, Leaders are not born, but created, created by our choices, our decisions, our actions, our commitments, our strategies, our life, our work” (Surviving The Killing Fields). In her many speeches for Campaigns and Charity Companies, Ung reflects the philosophy she now lives by. She was created and formed into a anger driven, hate filled child soldier in Cambodia, and was able to create herself into the strong activist she is today, by making different choices and decisions which are powered by the love for her country, her family and her story. Loung Ung believes, “Even though I’ve seen the worst of man’s inhumanity to man and which made the hate and hurt in my heart grow in the work that I do, in the love of my mother, in the strength of my father, in the kinship of my siblings in the grace and work and gratitude and generosity of the american people and of the charities I’ve been involved with. I have also witnessed the best of man’s humanity to man. This is what heals, this is the kind of leadership we can do. The best of man’s humanity to man is in all of us. We only have to choose it” (Cambodian Genocide Survivor, Ung). Just like every person has the potential to hate, everyone is also filled with the potential to love and it’s ones choice which one of the emotions is given the power to cancel the other out. Although she had to choose the hate in order to survive the war, she used her strength to convert to love and to free herself from all pain and hate, with the help of her inspiring story, family and country.
“First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers” is an inspiring true story by Loung Ung. Although Ung had every right to let the hate take over since she experienced more loss, pain and discrimination in the first 6 years of her life than most humans will experience in a lifetime, still she chose to love. Instead of being scared and terrified of her story, she uses it to raise awareness for the many innocent lives that were taken and the many innocent humans who are still living in pain in her native home. She has made it her own mission to go back to Cambodia and help the people, her family and all the other Cambodians who deserve a chance of happiness, ignoring the pain of the past that was marked like a scar into her heart.